Emily Ellis, physical education teacher at Oxford Elementary School, poses at the trailhead for Wit’s Swamp Preserve trail, an easy 1.3-mile loop. Provided photo

NORWAY — For Emily May Gagnon Ellis, a physical education teacher at Oxford Elementary School, teaching remotely has been a challenge. But to keep her students motivated and active, Ellis said she’s taken to the trails.

“The one good thing about this whole COVID-19 thing is that I’m seeing families who are going out and taking advantage of the wonderful resources we have locally, as far as trails and bike riding. I see a lot of people going out, and we have so much to offer,” said Ellis.

A few weeks ago, Ellis said she started to try and connect her love of the outdoors with her students. She started hiking local trails and posting her reports to parent-teacher Facebook groups, sharing pertinent details about trail conditions, difficulty, and whether little legs could make the trek.

“I started doing some of the local trails because I remembered as a young mom, I always wanted to have a lot of details about where we were going with young kids to make sure we could do it, what kind of trail it was,” Ellis said.

Ellis said since she’s started posting trails, she’s had students, and their families report back with their own recommendations.

“I tried different avenues of ways to connect and motivate, and at the moment, families came to like these trail reports,” said Ellis.

Through all of her recommended hikes, Ellis said she keeps elementary students in mind, suggesting younger kids might not have the stamina or attention span for longer hikes.

“I’m thinking of little legs, with not as much stamina or attention that some of the older kids might have,” said Ellis.

Some of her findings include Witt’s Swamp Preserve trail, a 1.3-mile loop off of Pleasant Street in Norway. Ellis recommends packing a lunch and having a picnic at the rest stop across from Norway Lake on Route 117.

“It’s really good if you have little kids, it’s one mile, a loop, and when you come to the fork in the road it doesn’t matter what you take,” said Ellis.

Ellis added that the Witt’s End trail, located farther down on Pleasant Street, is a longer loop; at about 4 miles, it takes about two hours to complete. Ellis also recommends Robert’s Farm Preserve, located off nearby Roberts Road in Norway.

Though she hasn’t done a report on them, Ellis also suggests Hawk Mountain in Waterford and Streaked Mountain, which straddles parts of Buckfield, Hebron and Paris. Streaked Mountain Trail is 0.7 miles, but is steep and considered a moderately demanding hike. She also recommends connecting with Western Maine Foothills Land Trust, as it gives out information about many local trails on its Facebook page.

Ellis said the response from her students has been very encouraging, and for as long as her students seem engaged and interested, she’s going to keep providing trail reports.

“We’re just trying to find ways to motivate children, and even families. … We’re connecting with families more, too. Somebody once told me to go where the energy is. I’m trying to make that true,” said Ellis.

And for as long as schools remain shuttered, the outdoors can provide a worthy classroom.

“ We’re going to continue to go where the energy is until it peters out. We’re trying to find ways to connect,” said Ellis. “We’re going to go with it.”


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